A giant stretch of seaweed in the Atlantic Ocean headed for Florida is full of bacteria and plastic, a recent study found, which could cause a “pathogen storm.”
This year’s 5,000-mile-long Sargassum seaweed bloom along the Caribbean and the Florida coast could be the largest ever recorded, NASA predicts, with much of the seaweed expected to wash ashore in June and July where it could wreak havoc.
The study, published in the journal Water Research in May, examined how the interaction between plastic marine debris and Vibrio bacteria in the massive Sargassum bloom concluded there could be “the perfect pathogen storm that has implications for both marine life and public health,” according to Florida Atlantic University.
The potentially dangerous Vibrio can stick to the plastic debris that gets caught in the mass of seaweed, the study found in seawater samples from the Caribbean and Sargasso seas.
Experts told LiveScience that while there is some concern about “flesh eating” bacteria, this scenario was not common.
“Clearly, the Vibrio can and does colonize both plastic and Sargassum, and it can carry genes that are potentially pathogenic,” Linda Amaral-Zettler, a marine biologist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and co-author of the study, told LiveScience.
“There have been some pretty horrific infections caused by Vibrio. Their flesh-eating potential is rare, but it’s real,” she said.
However, LiveScience reports that ingesting bacteria may still lead to illness such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. Even fish can get sick from it, causing negative effects on the environment.
“We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks,” Tracy Mincer, the corresponding lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“Mincer said that caution is needed when it comes to the processing and harvesting of Sargassum until risks have been thoroughly investigated.
Another expert told LiveScience he believed the findings were “not a huge issue” and that a lot of Vibrio are relatively harmless — but that beach-goers should still be wary of bacteria in the seaweed.
The algae is not only a problem for the environment. It can destroy coral reefs, cause wildlife harm, decrease air quality and threaten infrastructure. As Insider reported previously .
Meanwhile, as beached sargassum dies and rots, it gives off a powerful rotten-egg smell and causes problems for tourism industries in Mexico and Florida.
“The Florida Department of Health spokesperson Jae Williams told LiveScience that people should exercise caution. “They do not need to go play or recreate in the Sargassum, and if you see this Sargassum, just stay away from it.”